Oregon’s political divide sparks talk of secession
Conservatives have approved a series of ballot measures in pursuit of an unlikely plan to redraw the state’s border. We spent time in the disputed region to see what the debate says about the divisions of the country.
WHY WE ARE HERE
We explore how America defines itself one place at a time. Residents of eastern Oregon say they are tired of being ruled by more liberal parts of the state.
COVE, Ore. — Corey Cook still has a fondness for her days in Portland, where downtown pubs and riverside cherry blossoms made her proud to call the city of Rose home during her 20s. years.
But as she grew wary of the metropolitan area’s congestion and liberal politics, she moved to the suburbs, then to the suburbs, before heading east, eventually escaping the sphere of Portland’s influence across the Cascade Mountains in 2017. But even here, where she now leads a Christian camp among the pines overlooking the Grande Ronde Valley, she can’t help but notice how the values of western Oregon are kept in the eastern part of the state through laws making guns less accessible and abortions more accessible.
Unwilling to move east to Idaho, further from her family, Ms Cook, 52, is now wondering if redrawing the state’s maps might bring Idaho values to her instead.
“Oregon is no longer a unified state for me,” she said. “Saying I’m an Oregonian is a geographic truth, but it doesn’t really make sense to me like before I lived in eastern Oregon.”
The broad sense of remoteness felt in rural Oregon has led conservatives in recent years to pursue a scrupulous strategy to open a notional escape route, garnering thousands of signatures for a series of ballot measures that have now passed in 11 counties. These measures require regular meetings to discuss the idea of secession. In those places, including Union County, Mrs. Cook’s new home, county commissioners in rooms adorned with Oregon flags and maps are now forced to wonder if it would ever make sense to be part of Idaho.
The Greater Idaho movement joins a long history of defection struggles in the United States. In California, for example, there have been over 200 attempts over the years to dismantle the state. Greater Idaho sees its solution as simpler — a move from an existing border that would claim the entire eastern half of Oregon without creating an entirely new state. Although this is a long political plan, the sustained and growing interest of area residents and the attention of Idaho politicians has illustrated how divided the state is already in wit .
“It got worse over the years,” said John Lively, a Democratic state representative who grew up in one of the counties considering the secession plan. “It really reflects the divide we have in our country.”
Mr. Lively met with leaders in Greater Idaho, saying that while he does not support their efforts, the movement has followed the proper channels and opened up opportunities for people in western Oregon to understand why people across the state have grown. so unhappy.
Last month, noting the percolating chatter from across the border, Idaho state officials approved a move to enter into formal discussions with Oregon about whether and how to redraw a state border that stretches about 300 miles. Oregon lawmakers have so far failed to answer the call.
For some eastern Oregonians, the secession movement has been cathartic, a sort of relief valve for decades of boiling frustrations with the government in a region that, in the not-too-distant past, has welcomed its share of anti-government violence.
For others, the secession effort seemed chimerical, even silly. Success would require passage through state legislatures in both states and Congress, forcing Democrats who currently control broad political power in the Capitol in Salem, Oregon, to agree to the idea of ceding half the state to a neighbor who does not share their values. Such a change would make other inhabitants of the region more vulnerable, including the Klamath tribes, where it is feared that a move to Idaho could undermine efforts to fight for environmental protection on their ancestral lands.
A Marine Corps veteran who helps develop products for the hunting industry, Mr. Nash makes grocery store visits that can mean hours of casual conversation with every person he sees.
Mr. Nash, 36, observed eastern Oregon’s growing frustration with government policies that are altering the region’s way of life. Limits on logging have contributed to a sharp decline in the sprawling timber industry, leading to factory closures and mass layoffs. “Eastern Oregon is largely treated as Western Oregon’s playground,” he said.
Mr Nash plans to vote to advance the debate on secession, although he does not support actual implementation. He fears that a move to Idaho will bring its share of complications.
“I don’t think there’s any historical precedent for saying ‘this is going to work,'” Mr Nash said. “I would just rather we figure out how to restore Oregon to a better place.”
Redrawing the map would require much more than re-mapping. The logistical challenges grow thornier with each new question: Would Eastern Oregonians be willing to pass a sales tax? How would Idaho, which bans legal marijuana, handle the thriving weed industry in eastern Oregon? How would states transition Eastern Oregon state employees, with some benefits already vested, to a new retirement system with different rules and compensation?
Barbara Dee Ehardt, a Republican state representative from Idaho who sponsored a resolution to invite interstate talks, said she sees benefits for Idaho conservatives. Among them, she said, a border moving westward would push legal marijuana and legal abortions out of reach for people in her state.
Greater Idaho movement leader Mike McCarter, 75, a La Pine resident worked for 30 years in the state’s nursery industry and currently teaches courses in concealed handguns and shooting, and recently acquired an Idaho flag for her home.
Mr McCarter said in an interview that in the process of getting his message across, he spoke with the People’s Rights Group, led by Ammon Bundy. In 2016, Mr Bundy launched an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Harney County, which voted to join Oregon’s secession movement.
But Mr McCarter said he did not align himself with the group’s tactics, adding that he wanted his efforts to provide an outlet for people to vent their frustrations through peaceful means.
“We are not looking the way of civil disobedience,” he said.
State boundaries, he argued, were set with the idea of organizing like-minded people and can be adjusted to conform to changing communities, such as when divisions between parties is and western Virginia led to the creation of West Virginia.
“Even though people may say the odds are still against it, and they probably are, it still raises the issue,” McCarter said.
On their own, county commissioners have little power to change Oregon’s state lines, but supporters of the Greater Idaho movement have continued to pressure them, hoping they will pressure on state legislators. At last month’s meeting, activists urged commissioners to officially notify their state lawmakers that local citizens had voted to sign on to the idea.
The commissioners agreed, approving the message unanimously.
“I share the frustrations of people who want to do this,” Donna Beverage, one of the commissioners, said after the meeting. “I just don’t know how difficult it is going to be. But at the same time, when people are frustrated, we can fight for change.